Unity Plaza ~ New vibe for Brooklyn

By Carole Hawkins, Contributing Writer, Jax Daily Record

An outdoor amphitheater and entertainment hub under construction in Jacksonville’s Brooklyn neighborhood goes way beyond what’s normally expected of an amenity for an apartment-retail complex.

But the purpose behind Unity Plaza, being built next to a new mixed-use development at 220 Riverside goes way beyond selling apartments.

Jacksonville native Alex Coley, a principal at Hallmark Partners and the site’s developer, calls Unity Plaza a community service project disguised as a real estate deal.

“I believe real estate in the new millennium will be one of conscious capitalism, where you will do well by doing good,” he said.

When finished, the private nonprofit urban park will feature an amphitheater that seats 2,000 and an amenity deck the size of a football field.

It will host events 260 days a year.

City leaders say the development fits into Downtown revitalization plans by making the city more appealing to a new kind of residential consumer, one that values quality of life.

“Right now, a lot of people don’t see Jacksonville as a first-tier market,” said Ted Carter, executive director of Jacksonville’s Office of Economic Development.

“But national demographic trends show people are moving out of high-cost, dense, high-traffic cities and coming to the Southeast, where there are low taxes and a great quality of life, where you can really have a family life,” Carter added.

Some of those people are already in Jacksonville, according to Coley.

Almost 8,000 employees work within six blocks of the site, at such places as Florida Blue, EverBank and Halcrow.

He cited a Forbes article that said 90,000 people have moved to Jacksonville in the last decade to work in the technology and professional services area.

“These are a highly compensated, highly skilled pool we call cultural creatives, and when they move into a community, they demand a certain level of services,” he said. “Unity Plaza is designed to meet that level of service. It creates a cool place for them to work and play.”

Riverside-Brooklyn is one of about a half-dozen areas the Downtown Investment Authority has identified as potential catalyst sites for revitalization.

“There’s great momentum going on in Riverside-Brooklyn,” said Aundra Wallace, the authority’s CEO.

One of the things Downtown Jacksonville real estate lacks now is financial comparables that make it attractive for capital markets to underwrite projects, Wallace said.

Successful projects in Riverside and Brooklyn will give Jacksonville those market-rate comps.

“If we do that, financial markets will not view Downtown as a risk, because we can show them they can get a great rate of return on an investment,” he said.

Hallmark Partners donated 2.5 acres from its 11-acre site for Unity Plaza and plans to fund the nonprofit entity from a portion of its retail rents.

Coley said he hopes the project will set a standard the city can use with other Downtown developers.

“We wanted to deliver best-in-class real estate property that also makes a serious contribution to the community,” he said. “With this we’re building a community our kids can come home to.”


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